Yesterday, frustrated by yet another spambot, I took my Twitter account out of the “public timeline,” which is to say I’ve limited my tweets now to only my followers. Maybe I’ll change it back, but I needed a break, some time to think about where Twitter is right now in terms of publicity.
I’m using the word “publicity” here not in the usual sense, in terms of PR and attention-seeking, but as public-ness; that is, the “quality of being public” (m-w).
It might be quaint, or even foolish, to think of Twitter as anything less than fully public, for it has always existed within what danah boyd calls “networked publics,” these virtual spaces that enable “invisible audiences” and redefine our prior notions of what’s private and what’s out in the open.
But, for a long time (a long time in Internet years, of course…), Twitter was something less than fully public. It was, foremost, new, and that limited the number of people who used the service. Even today, it’s hasn’t reached a critical mass (many people I know have never heard of it, but everyone has heard of Facebook…). Current, although speculative, stats place the number of users at about 1 million, with 200,000 active users per week — compared to, say, Daily Kos, with its 1 million average users per day, these numbers aren’t all that large.
But Twitter is growing quickly, and along the way is becoming much less like an intimate social space (a feeling made all the more apparent because of the ability to “tune” the list of people you’re following), and increasingly part of the larger, media landscape. Perhaps most significantly, Twitter is now part of our politics, as journalists, politicians, and citizens have all begun using Twitter during the current election, including gathering around this virtual water cooler on every primary night of this long campaign season.
Twitter has also made its way into the business world. Many companies have tuned into these conversations that take place in 140-character tweets, to track what people are saying about them. This is something fairly new, made possible by a growing crop of services, such as Summize and Tweetscan, that use Twitter’s APIs to interrogate and index the site’s database. Using these new web sites, anyone can create a twitter search and corresponding RSS feed, and monitor anytime anyone on Twitter mentions the search term.
For businesses, this means real-time “brand management.”
Before sites like Tweetscan came along, digging into Twitter’s database was terribly difficult. Twitter had a significant orality to it, as the lack of an interface for its archives made conversations incredibly ephemeral, much like the spoken word. Now, recalling conversations from the database is easy and instantaneous.
So, for example, a few weeks ago I mentioned (ok, complained about…) NPR’s new talk show, The Takeaway. Soon after, someone affiliated with the show popped up, asking me what was it about the program I didn’t like. Another example is the spambot from yesterday — I mentioned “peak oil” in a conversation, and a few hours later was “followed” by a service that tracks oil prices.
Summize, in fact, has taken the business proposition of monitoring tweets one step further. With a recent deal with Huffington Post, Summize is now used to display real-time tweets for every tag on the HuffPost web site. So, if you tag-search for “Obama,” you’ll get a list of the most recent conversations mentioning the candidate. While it sounds innocent enough, and maybe even useful, what is also happening is conversations taking place on Twitter are being commodified, making the Huffington Post a more valuable web site, without anyone on Twitter necessarily knowing or agreeing to this.
But what happens on Twitter is “public,” isn’t it?
Of course, Facebook at one point took its public information and, with the introduction of the news feed, began using it in ways that hardly met the expectations of its users — a privacy “trainwreck” was the result.
I had a discussion about this, with Dave Parry (aka @academicdave) yesterday. And he made a great point. To paraphrase, while no one likes turning their thoughts into a commodity, we do “get something” out of the deal — we get listeners, we build community, we develop and enhance our reputation as individuals. These things, Dave argued, are more important than money.
To an extent, I agree. But that premise also has to be questioned, because in a neoliberal capitalist world (a world which includes the Web 2.0 ideology and business model), isn’t money, well, everything?
In a critical examination of Web 2.0, Petersen uses the term “loser generated content” to describe this political economy at work. In his essay, he describes the way social networking sites create strong ties for their users:
The demography of the people I interviewed places them on the left side of the political spectrum; they are at times directly anti–corporate/capitalist in the pictures they upload and their comments. Nonetheless, most of them do not see a problem in having such close ties with a particular company. This can only be explained with reference to the immense joy and pleasure they get out of sharing photos online. The huge amount of work that goes into each personal site is paid back in an affective currency: the joy and significance these sites bring to their users.
This “affective currency” is, in part, what Dave refers to above. But the real value proposition for Web 2.0 sites isn’t the photos we post on Flickr, or the actual words we say on Twitter. Content is no longer king — context data is:
What you buy, when acquiring a social networking site, is not content but context data produced by users and communities. In this way the architecture of participation turns into an architecture of exploitation and enclosure, transforming users into commodities that can be sold on the market.
…Relations are the key here. We need to acknowledge that relations of subjectivity, everyday life, technology, media and publics also are related to dimensions of capitalism. This relation reconfigures patterns of use into practices which caries a resemblance of work relations, transforming users into losers.
The problem isn’t really even with Twitter — it’s free right now, but it’s still someone’s idea of a business plan. Eventually, advertising will likely be added, and that’s how Twitter will make money.
“The astronomical growth in the wealth and cultural influence of multinational corporations over the last fifteen years can arguably be traced back to a single, seemingly innocuous idea developed by management theorists in the mid–1980’s: that successful corporations must primarily produce brands, as opposed to products… this corporate obsession with brand identity is waging a war on public and individual space: … on youthful identities, … and on possibilities of unmarketed space.”
No space. I started off this post talking about publicity. It’s a term Habermas uses in his discussion of the public sphere, and it’s directly related to the question of just how our tweets are used. I’m not so sure virtual space is endless — more and more of it is being co-opted by corporate interests. And while Huffington Post is an order of magnitude smaller than “Big Media” right now, that won’t likely last for long. (Arianna Huffington, in fact, doesn’t think of her site as a blog at all; she calls it an “Internet newspaper.”)
The point here is, we need space. We need a public sphere. We need a way to create publicity — to gain listeners, to establish and enhance our reputations — without creating wealth. Or becoming an ad for some Web 2.0 venture capitalist’s latest programmatic dream. There are pockets of this kind of publicity today — increasingly the political blogosphere is shaping our politics. Citizen journalism is on the rise. Wikipedia is a non-profit, more or less altruistic endeavor.
At the very least, we need to be cognizant of where our tweets end up.